|The Easter Message at Corinth
March 30, 1997 / Acts 18:1-22
When Paul left Athens, he traveled fifty-three miles south-southwest to Corinth. If Athens was the intellectual center of Achaia (and the larger Roman World), Corinth was certainly the most important political and economic city for Achaia. As a business and commercial center, this city of a quarter- to a half-million souls had very few equals in its day.
If we look ahead in time to one of the letters Paul later wrote the church he founded at Corinth, we get this glimpse of his arrival there: "When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and his crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling" (1 Cor. 2:1-3).
Various writers have attributed Paulís state of mind to a variety of sources. It is quite common, for example, to read that Paul was discouraged by his miserable performance and lack of success at Athens. But he did not fail at Athens. He had spoken by the power of the Spirit of God, addressed his audience at their points of concern, and proclaimed salvation in the name of Jesus. Several ó including at least one member of the Areopagus ó had been saved and became the nucleus of a church.
I donít think Paul was regretting what had taken place at Athens or intimidated by anything he anticipated at Corinth. I believe his state of mind was due to several quite natural and understandable factors.
For one thing, he was lonely because Silas, Timothy, and Luke were on assignment and could not join him for a time. Just ask any missionary what the initial loneliness of a new place without family, friends, or fellow-believers does to a person. Additionally, Paul was broke. He consistently refused to take money from just-founded churches (cf. 1 Thess.2:9), and those were the only places he had been of late. For another, there would have been his natural pastoral concern for the new Christians and congregations of believers he had left in dire straits at Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea. Add to all these a sense of personal inadequacy for so daunting a task as evangelizing a city so large and worldly as Corinth and there is no wonder the operative terms to describe his state of mind were "weakness," "fear," and "much trembling."
How God Met Paulís Needs
If the causes of Paulís anxiety were things such as the ones I have just listed, the Lordís response to each is quite apparent.
First, God provided Paul with new friends. "[At Corinth] he met a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all the Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them, and because he was a tentmaker as they were, he stayed and worked with them" (Acts 18:2-3).
In the ninth year of his reign (i.e., A.D. 49), Emperor Claudius banished all Jews from the empireís chief city. Suetonius, writing in his Life of Claudius, gives the reason behind the ban: "As the Jews were indulging in constant riots at the instigation of Chrestus, he banished them from Rome." Although the name could possibly be that of some troublemaker, most scholars believe "Chrestus" is merely an alternative spelling for Christ. The gospel had certainly reached the Imperial City by A.D. 49. Debates and uprisings at Rome of the sort that had taken place at Philippi, Thessalonica, or shortly at Corinth would have been noticed. Claudiusí firm determination to keep Rome free of unrest could have made him decide quickly to end the problem by getting the Jewish population out of his city.
Whatever Claudiusí purpose, the sovereignty of God used his action to move this Jewish-Christian couple of Corinth. There they would befriend Paul and become his trusted associates.
Second, his newfound association with Aquila and Priscilla met Paulís need for a way to support himself. Jewish rabbis were trained to be bivocational, so they would not have to charge for their teaching. Paul had learned the trade of tentmaker ó or, more precisely, canvass worker or leather worker ó as his means of support. And Aquila and Priscilla just happened to be tentmakers themselves. Thus three Christians who had met at Corinth formed a business that allowed them to rent shelter, buy food, and otherwise care for themselves.
Since Corinth was a city with two seaports, people who could work canvass and leather (i.e., make sails, tents, etc.) were always able to get work. Both the income and the physical labor as a relief of his stress would have been good for Paul.
Third, Paulís anxiety about the believers he had left behind on his second tour was the background to letters he wrote from Corinth to Thessalonica. When Silas and Timothy eventually rejoined him (Acts 18:5), they brought a gift of money from the congregation at Philippi (cf. 2 Cor.11:9; Phil.4:14-15) and a particularly encouraging report about the progress of the saints at Thessalonica. "But Timothy has just now come to us from you and has brought good news about your faith and love. He has told us that you always have pleasant memories of us and that you long to see us, just as we also long to see you. Therefore, brothers, in all our distress and persecution we were encouraged about you because of your faith" (1 Thess.3:6-7).
Part of the "distress and persecution" Paul mentioned could well have included a variety of confrontations leading up to the one involving Gallio. When Paul began making converts at the synagogue he, Aquila, and Priscilla were attending on the Sabbath, "the Jews made a united attack on Paul and brought him into court" (Acts 18:12). They charged him with subverting the Law of Moses. Gallio had the good sense to throw the case out of his court, saying that the state had no right to interfere in disputes of biblical interpretation.
Fourth, there was the daunting task of preaching Christ in a difficult environment. Because it was a port city of great wealth, Corinth was a wide-open town where every form of evil was practiced. There was gambling, drunkenness, drug abuse, prostitution, homosexuality, robbery, murder, and any other vice you can name at Corinth. The city was the center for the worship of Aphrodite, whose temple with a thousand cult prostitutes was open twenty-four hours a day on the crown of the Acrocorinth; sexual union with one of the priests or priestesses was supposed to achieve spiritual union with Aphrodite.
Corinth was such a wicked city that the Greeks coined the verb "to Corinthianize" in the fifth century B.C. It meant to be sexually immoral and was supposed to be both a joke and social commentary on life in that city.
Paulís Message at Corinth
God gave Paul a strong encouragement during his stay at Corinth. After the Jews had thrown him out of their synagogue and Paul had commenced his work among the Gentiles, his work was still bearing fruit. Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, came to the Lord ó along with his entire family. Furthermore, "many of the Corinthians who heard him believed and were baptized" (Acts 18:8).
In addition to these practical affirmations of his ministry, the Lord revealed himself to Paul. "One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision: ĎDo not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.í So Paul stayed for a year and a half, teaching them the word of God" (Acts 18:9-11).
So what do you think Paul preached at the synagogue and in the rented hall of Titus Justus for eighteen months? Interestingly, there is not even a summary of one of his Corinthians sermons in the narrative Luke gives us. So what would you teach people in a place like Corinth?
Would you give up on the adults and start a Christian daycare center in hopes of reaching the children? Would you perhaps start a monastery and try to isolate a few people from Corinthís depravity? Perhaps there is some other strategy that comes to your mind. But let me dip again into his later writings to Corinth to let you know what the Spirit of God led Paul to do there. He preached the Easter Message of Godís power to triumph over discouragement, evil, and death.
"Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. . . . For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to [many witnesses]" (1 Cor.15:1-8).
Evil Cannot Have the Final Word
The Easter Message is that evil will not have the final word. Satan cannot defeat God. Sin cannot overthrow righteousness. Hatred cannot conquer love. Death cannot destroy life. Easter is heavenís guarantee that ó appearances to the contrary withstanding at times! ó God and righteousness, love and life will triumph in the end.
On that terrible Friday afternoon, both the sky above and their hearts within went dark for Peter, John, Thomas, and the rest. They thought it was all over. Jesus had failed. They had failed. Their dreams of the kingdom had failed. Everything was finished for them.
They entered a sad and melancholy period of mourning. Not one in their little group could comfort any other. They were all crushed beneath the weight of their disappointment and pain. It was so intensely personal for each of them, yet they attached themselves to one another for support. It was too painful to be alone, yet the heartache was no less for still being together.
Two days later they began hearing rumors about Jesus being seen around Jerusalem. Some women were talking nonsense about seeing and touching him. Was there no respect for the dead any longer? Were these people trying to add insult to injury? Would they never cease their taunting?
Some of them rushed out to the tomb and found it empty. But that probably meant only that the Romans had taken his body and reburied it in a secret place. One thing they knew for sure: death is final and irreversible. It was over. Nothing would ever be right again. Jesus was dead.
Then, in a room whose door was shut and barred, Jesus was standing right before them! Could they believe their own eyes? Had the rumors been true? Then they heard his voice, and he was inviting them ó no daring them ó to verify what was happening. "Look at my hands and my feet," Jesus said. "It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have" (Luke 24:39).
They werenít dreaming. It wasnít a mass hallucination. Jesus was there. He was alive and with them again!
Death wasnít irreversible after all. Neither, then, did their pain, unbelief, and fear have to be final. Nor Paulís weakness, fear, and trembling. Not even Corinthís sleazy lifestyle, its immorality, its warped parodies of religion. Every life can have meaning because of heavenís resurrection power that has been witnessed in Christ.
When the original apostles finally grasped the meaning of Easter, those men who had crept away from Golgotha in fear would stand in the streets of Jerusalem to preach that salvation is in Jesus Christ. When Paul made the Easter Message his matter of "first importance" at Corinth, his frustrations and fears gave way to confident proclamation. When Easterís dawn arose on the drunkards, prostitutes, and thieves of Corinth, even they understood that they were being offered redemption in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of the Living God (cf. 1 Cor.6:9-11).
Easter signals the astonishing truth of reversibility to all of us. There is no childhood trauma, no humiliating moral failure, no diagnosis of terminal illness, no episode of failed faith in your life that is final. The empty tomb means that darkness can give way to light, failure to victory, and death to life.
Easter means that no bad thing in your life is final! Believe it. Rejoice in it. Praise him for it. Because he lives, so may we!
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